March 3, 2014

Burma Campaign UK today publishes a new briefing paper – Downplaying Human Rights Abuses in Burma – analysing the most recent quarterly human rights update on Burma produced by the British Foreign Office.

The briefing paper is available here.

Every quarter, the British Foreign Office publishes updates of ‘countries of concern’ as part of its Human Rights and Democracy report. Burma is included in these updates.

Analysis of the most recent British Foreign Office Human Rights and Democracy Country Update for Burma, published on 31st December 2013, reveals that the report provides a misleading and inaccurate description of the current human rights situation in Burma.

. The report falsely claims that Thein Sein ordered the release of all prisoners and persons facing trial for political offences.

. The report avoids using the word ‘Rohingya’, despite the Rohingya suffering some of the most serious human rights abuses in Burma today.

. The report uncritically quotes the Burmese government claims about zero tolerance of hate-speech despite the Burmese government tolerating hate speech and publicly defending those preaching hate speech.

. No mention is made of hundreds of arrests of political activists.

. Violations of international law get no explicit mention.

Since the British government changed its policy of prioritising human rights in Burma, and instead prioritised trade and investment, the quarterly reports have increasingly tended to downplay serious human rights abuses, or even ignore them altogether. The tone is now generally positive, and is not critical of the Burmese government.

This appears in part to be in order to try to avoid criticism of the current soft engagement Burma policy which is focused on building a closer relationship with the government of Burma. A strong focus on ongoing human rights abuses could attract more questions regarding the effectiveness of current policy. The current approach of the British government is to acknowledge problems, but present a generally positive picture.

The downplaying of human rights abuses and the soft approach towards the Burmese government coincides with much slower progress of reforms since pressure was lifted. Most recently we have seen serious consequences of this soft foreign policy in Rakhine State, with the Burmese government suspending the operations of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). This is a move which will cost lives. The Burmese government is aware that it will be controversial, but given the weak response to past abuses by the British government and others, is now obviously confident it can get away with this move without facing serious consequences.

“By downplaying human rights abuses in Burma, the British government is in effect helping the Burmese government to continue committing these abuses,” said Anna Roberts, Executive Director of Burma Campaign UK. “The Foreign Office reports on Burma present a misleading and inaccurate picture of the human rights situation. There appears to be a deliberate policy of downplaying serious human rights abuses. The most likely reason for this is to try to avoid inconvenient facts which don’t fit with the change of policy to prioritise business rather than human rights.”

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